The Goon Show originally ran on the BBC Home Service from 1951 to 1960, making stars of its three main artistes, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe (Michael Bentine was also involved at the start, but left the show in 1953).
In 1967 Milligan had an idea (that was to become The Phantom Raspberry Blower) that he conceived as the chance to get himself, Sellers, and Secombe back together for a one-off, hour-long special for Rediffusion (the precursor of ITV) but sadly by 1970 it had become impossible to get the idea off the ground due to Sellers’ commitments in Hollywood.
The following year Ronnie Barker adapted Milligan’s hour-long special to become a twenty-five minute stand-alone episode of his LWT series, Six Dates With Barker, and there it might have languished had he not revisited it in 1976, turning it into eight mini-episodes as part of that seasons’ The Two Ronnies, re-titling it The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town. It was a hit.
The show that’s playing at The St James, and will be touring from January, is Lee Moone’s adaptation of Milligan and Barker’s work, but transposed to function in a theatrical context. The most obvious change is that the show you see on stage is being performed as if the cast and crew were making a radio programme, like The Goon Show, complete with live foley artist, and plenty of audience participation.
So, is the adaptation any good? Well, overall, yes (with one caveat, more of which later). Where it flies it really flies, and although there was the odd slip up, I’m sure the show will get slicker and tighter as the tour progresses.
As well as a musical director (Matthew Freeman) and foley (sound effects) artist (Jessica Bowles) the show has a cast of five, with three of the cast very obviously taking the roles of the original Goon Show stars, though they don’t attempt an impersonation.
Thus David Boyle, playing the policeman on the track of the dastardly Phantom, -Inspector Corner of Scotland Yard – is taking what would have been the Peter Sellers role. Steve Elias, the rather excitable Welshman who is Corner’s sidekick, Sergeant Bowles is taking what would have been the Harry Secombe role. Lee Moone who takes various roles and was responsible for the adaptation delivers Spike Milligan’s part.
The final two cast members are James Petherick, and Jodie Jacobs.
Petherick, who should logically be taking the part of Wallace Greenslade – the BBC announcer and newsreader who was an integral part of the show and acted as the ‘authority figure’ at one step apart from the anarchic goings on – doesn’t naturally seem to have the ‘endlessly proper diction and sturdy presence’ that define the role.
Jacobs, on the other hand, is listed in the programme as ‘The Girl’. There wasn’t a regular female member of The Goons. They just brought in jobbing actresses as and when required. However, Jacobs really is the glue that holds this show together, not only by fantastic comic timing, and wonderful characterisation, but also her singing. Indeed the show has two songs interpolated, one in each act, and Jacobs’ in Act Two is the most satisfyingly filthy and corrupting song being performed on the London stage…but only if you understand what it’s about.
Oh, and my caveat. The action after Jacobs’ song in Act Two just isn’t that dramatic. As a result there’s a real lull in the second half of the act which feels like we’re marking time and treading water until the point where (we hope) The Phantom will be caught and brought to justice. That’s a shame, as otherwise this is a lovely little show.